Chapter 21

Back to the beginning

The Red Lancers of the Guard had started the campaign with 1,090 NCOs and lancers; they received 401 reinforcements during the fighting and on 13 December their strength was sixty men. They had lost 1,341 horses. Of the fifty-six officers, only thirty-two were still fit for duty.

Denis Davidov was called to Kutuzov in Wilna on 13 December; he recalled the sudden change from visions of hell to near normality:

What changes in headquarters! Whereas previously a ruined village and a smoky hut surrounded by sentries, or a log cabin with folding stools, served as a setting, I now saw a courtyard filled with fancy carriages and a crowd of Polish grandees in dress uniforms, captured generals, and our own generals and staff officers roaming all over the place!

It seems that Kutuzov’s field headquarters bore no comparison at all with the pomp and circumstances of that of Napoleon.

Kutuzov gave Davidov the task of marching south west from Wilna to Grodno on the River Niemen to urge the Austrians to evacuate Russian territory. On 20 December, his men bumped into an Austrian patrol and took two prisoners. According to instructions, he returned them to Austrian General Frelich, who was holding Grodno with his cavalry brigade. After some negotiations, Frelich agreed to hand over the town, intact, with its considerable depots, and withdrew into Austrian territory. For his daring exploits during this campaign, Denis Davidov was awarded the Order of St George, 4th Class and the Order of St Vladimir, 3rd Class.

The road to the west forked after Kowno; one road led to Koenigsberg, the other down the Niemen to Tilsit. Marshal Ney had signposts erected showing the survivors of the various corps to which towns they should go. Many of the isolated refugees preferred, however, to strike off on their own to try to get home. The Russians did not press their pursuit.

The 6th Regiment of the Rhine, under Colonel Heringen, escorting a treasure wagon back to Koenigsberg, was attacked by a group of French lancers, on the pretext that they had not received any pay for months and felt entitled to help themselves. Heringen had his men drive them off with musketry. Just then, Murat arrived and managed to bring the lancers back to their senses. On another occasion, Marshal Berthier and his ADC came upon a broken down wagon with a German detachment guarding it. ‘Allons en prison avec ce Jean f... d’Allemande, avec ce traitre!’ growled Berthier. (Throw those f...ing Germans into prison, the traitors!).

The Austrians in the southern sector also fell back westwards, as Ulan Captain von Boehm’s account relates:

In early December - after the crossing of the Beresina - we reached the area of Slonim, but there we began to receive madly fictional despatches from the Duke of Bassano’s rumour factory (‘l’Empereur avait complêtement battu l’ennemi sur la Beresina’) [the Emperor has completely defeated the enemy at the Beresina] and the Prince began to smell a rat. At this time the thermometer fell to minus 27 degrees on the Reaumur scale1 and we were losing a lot of men on the outposts.

Lieutenant-Colonel Graf Latour, two other officers and I were sent out in different directions to establish what the real situation was. My task was to go back as far as Warsaw if necessary, to talk to the French ambassador to the Grand Duchy, Baron Dominique Dufour de Pradt, Napoleon’s Aumonier, and to find out what was really going on. After delivering this vital information to Vienna, I returned to the army.

The Austrian and Saxon corps had by then withdrawn to the area of Bialystock; this movement was continued and we soon crossed the River Bug at Brest Litowsk. By this time, we had formally been authorised by Marshal Berthier to begin negotiations with the Russians on an armistice, in order to save the Saxons and Durutte’s2 division from total destruction. We then took up winter quarters in the Duchy of Warsaw; headquarters was at Pultusk.

In Gumbinnen Murat assembled the general staff and addressed them.

It is no longer possible to serve a madman! There is no hope of success in his cause. In all Europe there is not one prince who still has faith in his treaties. I am sorry that I rejected the proposals of the English. If I had not done that, I should still be a great monarch, like the Emperor of Austria or the King of Prussia!

He was interrupted by Davout.

The King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria, are princes by the grace of God, the age, and the acceptance of their people. But you - you are only a king by the grace of Napoleon and your French blood! The only way you can keep your title is through Napoleon and by remaining faithful to France. Black ingratitude has made you blind. I swear I will denounce you to the Emperor!

The survivors continued to trickle off westwards, to the grudging safety of East Prussia, and soon the once high-and-mighty of Imperial headquarters limped gratefully into Koenigsberg. To quote Segur:

We were soon forced to drag our abasement through Koenigsberg. The Grande Armée that for twenty years had been marching triumphantly through the capitals of Europe was reappearing for the first time in full flight, mutilated, disarmed, in one of the cities it had most humiliated by its glory. The inhabitants ran out as we went by to count our wounds, to evaluate their hopes of liberation by the extent of our misfortune; and we had to satiate their greedy eyes with the sight of our misery, bear the insults of their hopes, parading our failure before their odious merrymaking and marching under the crushing weight of disaster... But the poor vestige of the Grande Armée did not sink beneath the burden. This mere shadow managed somehow to make an imposing show, to preserve its air of sovereignty. Though defeated by the elements, we paraded before man our victorous dominating formation. The Germans, inspired either by fear or sluggishness, received us submissively. Their hatred was confined to a show of cold indifference, and as they rarely act of themselves, they were obliged to minister to our distress while awaiting some signal.

e9781783409587_i0109.jpg

A Polish general in the traditional uniform of that country; slate blue jacket, crimson piping, silver buttons, red breeches. The band around the square-topped Czapka and the waist sash are crimson and silver. A plate by C. Weiland. Author’s collection.

The 6th Regiment of the Rhine, which had not even seen a Russian soldier, arrived back in Koenigsberg only 300 men strong. But even now the survivors were not safe; typhus and other ills raged among them.

Loison’s 34th Division, which had left Koenigsberg with 14,000 men on 1 November, re-entered the city on 28 December with scarcely 2,000. The Frankfurters had suffered most casualties, but despite this, they managed a ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ as they filed past Murat. The 5th and 6th Regiments of the Rhine tramped past in silence.

Notes

1

Rene-Antoine-Ferchault de Reamur (1683-1757) invented a temperature scale in 1730, in which water froze at 0 degrees and boiled at 80 degrees.

2

32nd Infantry Division.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!